This Day in Jewish History

1887: Alaska's First Governor Is Born

Why Ernest Gruening opposed letting Europe's Jews into Alaska isn't clear, but later he was a staunch supporter of Israel.

February 6, 1887 is the birthdate of Ernest Gruening, an extraordinary American figure who trained as a physician but worked in journalism before becoming one of Alaska’s first two U.S. senators. He was one of only two senators who voted, in 1964, against expanding U.S. military involvement in Vietnam.

Ernest Henry Gruening was born in New York, the youngest of four children born to Emil Gruening and the former Phebe Fridenberg.

Emil was a German-speaking Jew from Hohensalza, East Prussia (now Inowroclaw, Poland). After immigrating to the United States in 1861, at 18, he fought in the Civil War, and become a successful ophthalmic surgeon. Phebe, who was also from Hohensalza, married Emil after his first wife — her sister Rose — died in childbirth.

The Gruening children were raised with all the privileges of a prosperous and totally secular New York family. Ernest attended a number of private schools and did both his undergraduate and medical studies at Harvard, in keeping with his father’s wishes. During med school he occasionally filled in for a friend who was a drama critic for the Boston Traveler. He so enjoyed the work that after completing medical school, in 1912, Gruening (he pronounced it “greening”) informed his father that his medical career ended there.

Early advocate of birth control

Over the next two decades, Gruening reported and edited for a number of publications, including the Traveler, the Boston Evening Herald and the Boston Journal in Boston and in New York the magazine The Nation and the newspapers the New York Post and the New York Tribune. For two years in the mid-1920s, he was on assignment in Mexico for Collier’s Weekly.

Gruening was politically liberal, personally stubborn and often clashed with his publishers. He was a lifelong advocate of birth control and supporter of civil rights who, as an editor, forbid writers to mention the race of a criminal suspect in their reports.

His engagement with politics began during his years as an editor and reporter. In 1933, while editing The Nation, he mobilized a large team to track down a rumored article, published two decades earlier in a Catholic periodical and said to be extremely anti-Semitic, by Joseph McKee, the frontrunner in the New York mayoral election in a field that included Fiorello La Guardia. Gruening republished the article’s most offensive passages, and La Guardia went on to win by a landslide.

Suddenly, governor of Alaska

By the time Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated, in 1933, Gruening’s politics and his knowledge of the Americas were well known. The new president appointed Gruening director of U.S. territories and island possessions, which gave him administrative authority over Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Alaska and Hawaii. Six years later, FDR named him governor of Alaska Territory.

During his 14 years as governor, Gruening lobbied hard for Alaskan statehood. When that happened, in January 1959, Gruening became one of the state’s first two U.S. senators. He was reelected in 1962 but was narrowly defeated in the Democratic primary of 1968, at age 81 — despite a well-publicized swim in the Arctic Ocean.

In 1964 Gruening joined his Oregon colleague Sen. Wayne Morse in opposing the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which effectively gave President Lyndon Johnson authority to expand the war in Vietnam.

It’s difficult to say what Gruening thought of his Jewish heritage, as he never mentioned it. According to Kurt F. Stone, author of “The Jews of Capitol Hill,” Gruening’s own autobiography does not contain a “sentence, a suggestion, a single word that would indicate that Ernest Gruening and his family were Jewish.” When Alaska had an opportunity to offer refuge to small numbers of Jews from Nazi-occupied Europe, Gruening was opposed, apparently because he didn’t think Alaska should have a different immigration policy from the lower 48 states. On the other hand, in the U.S. Senate he was an outspoken and enthusiastic supporter of Israel.

Gruening remained busy after retiring from the Senate, giving frequent public addresses about Vietnam, birth control and women’s rights. He died on June 26, 1974, in Washington. His body was cremated and the ashes scattered on Mount Ernest Gruening, north of Juneau, Alaska.